I love books about strong, independent women. I have a soft
spot for “bad girl” characters. I get lost in historical novels where I find
details so skillfully woven into the story that I forget I’m learning. Most of all,
I enjoy classical “fair play” detective fiction, especially when I get to the
resolution, react with “What?” and then realize the clues were cleverly placed
all along. When I find all of these elements in one book, I know I’ve found a
treasure. The Midwife’s Tale by Sam
Thomas is a treasure.
The primary plot involves Bridget’s efforts to help her friend Esther Cooper, who has been accused of the murder of her husband. Given the turmoil of a city under siege, the Lord Mayor has been able to indict, try, convict and sentence Esther to be burned at the stake within the period of a few days. We learn through this process that murdering one’s husband is punishable not just as homicide, but as treason, allowing the more painful penalty of burning rather than hanging. This episode is just one of many examples of the author’s skill in weaving fascinating historical detail into his narrative. Bridget has enough influence through her connections and her authority as a midwife to be allowed to visit Esther in prison, and declares that Esther is with child, thus delaying her execution until after the birth, and allowing Bridget and Martha time to try to find the real culprit.
As Bridget and Martha investigate, attempting to locate the apothecary who sold the ratsbane which was slipped into Stephen Cooper’s milk, we are treated to a tour of York in the 17th century, from the most exclusive to the poorest neighborhoods. As they continue their work of attending expectant mothers, we enter homes and witness the daily life of the inhabitants. Childbirth was a community affair, and the laboring women are attended by a roomful of neighbors and friends. In one marvelous scene, the visiting women have spent their time talking and drinking wine, ignoring the suffering mother-to-be. Martha, ordered by Bridget to remove the drunken “gossips,” and having no authority but her own street-smarts, grabs one of the women by the ears and throws her out; the others quickly follow before they are subjected to the same treatment.
There are several intriguing subplots. Bridget must investigate the murder of a newborn. She is required to interrogate an expectant single mother to ascertain the identity of the father so that the child will not become a dependent on charity. Martha is stalked by a strange man, who may be a soldier, requiring that guards be posted at Bridget’s house for protection. All of these strands are tied together nicely in the end, along with the main storyline, yielding a satisfying read for the mystery lover.
The fast paced, intricate plot and historical detail are supported by a cast of fully fleshed out characters. Bridget, who narrates the story, stands up to powerful political forces who want her to cease her investigation, shows courage when her life is threatened, and interrogates other women harshly when her duties require. Her tears and pain over her own deceased children, her concern for her aging servant, her discreet charity to the poor, and her heartache at the early deaths of so many children she has delivered demonstrate that she displays this strength despite her own sensitivity. Martha, at first the docile servant seeking employment, surprises Bridget when she efficiently dispatches a would-be attacker while the two are on their rounds. She has been less than straightforward about her background, and although her skills come in handy, Bridget wonders how she acquired them.
There are many well-drawn minor characters. Bridget’s nephew, Will, the younger son of a prominent family whose brother has gone off to war, has a club foot and has turned from being bullied to seeking fights. He is protective of his aunt and suspicious of Martha. Martha shows both her sense of humor and her ability to deflect suspicion when she teases him about his constant attention to her. There is a mysterious Italian who handles “delicate matters” for the Lord Mayor and who tries to intimidate Bridget with veiled threats until finally holding a dagger to her throat, smiling charmingly all the while. Rebecca Hooke, who has secrets of her own, resists Bridget’s inquiries for complex reasons, both fear for her own position and resentment that Bridget has supplanted her as a midwife.
Mr. Thomas is an historian and teacher. As he explains in an Author’s Note, Bridget Hodgson is based on a real 17th century midwife of that name, whose will he came across while doing research. His website is a trove of information about both the background of his heroine and the practice of midwifery in early modern England. Although not necessary to the enjoyment of this novel, I highly recommend it for more fascinating historical information than even the talented Mr. Thomas could squeeze into one novel.
Full Disclosure: I was introduced to the author at Bouchercon in October by his agent, our own Dead Guy Josh Getzler. I consider our conversation one of the highlights of my stay in Cleveland. I might otherwise have overlooked this outstanding debut. It is obvious that history to Mr. Thomas is people, not dates and battles. Josh, I sure hope you sold this as a series!